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100 Years of Harley Davidson

Willie G. Davidson

(Bulfinch Press)

Mr. Motorcycle Man

“I’m hip about time.”
— Captain America in Easy Rider


Somewhere in the Hollywood formula of boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-again a crucial step was left out. It is this: boy gets himself a motorcycle and the chick goes wild. Ever since the iconic opening scene of Laszlo Benedek’s The Wild One, featuring Marlon Brando and his rakishly tilted biker cap astride an iron pony, the image of the outlaw, bad-boy biker has been permanently imprinted on the minds of the American public.


In this day and age, to own a motorcycle is to embrace the twin values of freedom and liberty, and to participate in the dream of life on the open road, a life mythologized by the beat writers of the ‘50s. The myth is recast every so often, as Easy Rider attests, and the nature of the Biker morphs from outlaw to outcast to outlaw again. But the core image has remained unsullied in popular culture since Brando’s shattering performance. Prior to “The Wild One,” the perception of Bikers was closer to that of computer geeks in the early ‘80s: they were a subculture of gear-heads who loved to race and muck about with ‘lube.


Today, bikers are rebels, bikers are dangerous, and, incredibly, bikers are utterly mainstream. The myth of the Biker, sold up and down Madison Avenue and Century City, is that buying a motorcycle will transmogrify a flavorless personality into El Diablo incarnate, or at least as close as leather chaps can get you. The pitch is simplicity itself: Motorcyclists court danger. Chicks dig danger. Get yourself a chopper and you’ll be swarmed by a bevy of scantily-clad nymphs in no time. QED.


In the United States, it seems fair to say that no company has done more to perpetuate the Biker myth, and benefit from its retelling, than Harley Davidson. Begun from humble origins in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1903, Harley Davidson in 2003 has firmly established itself as the flag-bearer of the Biker-mystique created in the 1950s. From H.O.G. (the Harley Owners Group) to the Hells Angels, diehard Harley owners are a tight-knit and exclusive group. Just ask any other biker on the rode. Harley riders only wave to other Harley riders, and only ride in formation with other Harley riders. What some see as arrogance, Harley owners defend as commonsense. Anyone with a couple hundred bucks can buy himself a bike, but only someone who has ‘made it’ can afford the thousands it costs to get a Harley. They also wax eloquent about the respect and good sense of other Harley riders, in contrast to those who ride the latest knock-offs. Like every other animal on the planet, they seem to prefer the company of their own kind.


100 Years of Harley Davidson is a big, heavy, coffee-table sized tome of a book. Rich with photographs and illustrations, readers learn how Harley’s early success came directly out of building superior racing bikes. The company survived the great depression and two world wars by winning military contracts, and their bikes’ reliability and toughness during these years made the name upon which the brand now rests. I suspect that even critics of motorcycles (as health hazards, as noise-polluting civic menaces, etc.) would acquiesce on at least one point: these bikes are gorgeous. To gaze on Harley’s 2002 VRSCA V-Rod, with its trim lines and taunt yet low-hung chasis, is to witness machine-as-art. This seems rather fitting for the breed in general, as the evolution of the motorized bicycle (witness the incredible Guggenheim retrospective in 2001) seems ever nearer to approaching the apotheosis of machine-as-sex.


Any fan of Harley Davidson, from the purported 640,000 H.O.G. members to the sweaty-palmed dentist feverishly contemplating buying his first bike, will enjoy this homage to the company. At a suggested retail price of $65, though, perhaps only someone who can afford a Harley would be interested.

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